DOPE (2015) FILM REVIEW
A coming of age comedy/drama for the post hip hop generation. Malcolm is a geek, carefully surviving life in The Bottoms, a tough neighborhood in Inglewood, CA filled gangsters and drugs dealers, while juggling his senior year of college applications, interviews and the SAT. His dream is to attend Harvard. A chance invitation to a big underground party leads Malcolm and his friends into a, only in Los Angeles, gritty adventure filed with offbeat characters and bad choices. If Malcolm can persevere, he’ll go from being a geek, to being dope, to ultimately being himself….Open Road Films…IMBD.com
DOPE (2015) FILM REVIEW 6-20-2015
6-20-2015 – Written By: David L. $Money Train$ Watts – Journalist/Film Reviewer FuTurXTV & HHBMedia.com – David Velo Stewart – Editor – www.hiphopbattle.com
Malcolm: Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Malcolm Arakanbe. I’m a straight-A student with nearly perfect SAT scores. I play in a punk band with my friends and I’m a 90s hip hop geek. A bad day for most geeks would be being the butt of jokes but when you live in the Bottoms, a bad day could look like this…IMDB.com…Quotes Page
I want to first state emphatically that I really liked watching director/writer/executive producer Rick Famuyia’s DOPE (2015). I am sure everyone who originally saw DOPE at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival thought that this coming age film about a “Hood Geek” Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his equally geeky best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemmons of CBS’s “Extant”) and Jib (Tony Revolori of multi-Oscar nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel) was the most unique, innovative and important Black indie film since last year’s Dear White People or the Buppie film fan favorite Beyond The Lights.
I can appreciate why most film critics, no matter their age, race or gender, were greatly impressed with a mainstream appealing film with lead minority characters who openly wanted to be Black geeks or Blerds (Black Nerds) who likes wearing clothes from classic Hip-Hop of the 90’s, playing punk rock/alternative rock songs, going to college over wanting to hang with gangbangers, writing code and talking intelligently about the Dark Web, and setting up TOR accounts and bitcoins.
Yes, DOPE, has crossed many boundaries for establishing some of the most multi-dimensional teenage Black, Hispanic and multiracial characters who are not doing, saying or wearing what they think is cool or popular, following impressionable urban teens who love watching the BET Awards. And I can easily admire DOPE’s tag line of “It’s Hard Out Here To Be A Geek” as a playful homage to Hustle & Flow’s “It’s Hard Out Here To Be A Pimp”. What really struck me the most from watching DOPE was how it resembled a mash-up of three films: John Singleton’s Baby Boy (2001), Judge Apatow’s Superbad (2007) and Tom Cruise’s Risky Business (1983).
Ironically, both Baby Boy and Superbad are Sony Pictures as well.
DOPE has a lot of random violence, gun shots, deaths and gang banging scenes like in the same Inglewood/The Bottoms/Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills areas in Baby Boy. The character Dom, played masterfully by rapper A$AP Rocky (Rakim Mayers), could easily be interchanged with Joseph Summers (Tyrese Gibson) in Baby Boy, and no one would miss a beat. Dom and Jody, in my opinion, represent the cocky, cool and very charismatic drug dealing/hustler/playas that one can only hope will get to survive and escape all the daily death traps in the hood.
I actually was sad when Dom was arrested and we barely saw him after because he was, at times, more interesting and entertaining than Malcolm, the star of the film. As funny and lighthearted as DOPE wants to appear on the outside, there are action scenes where brothers are getting shot in the head by stray bullets, blown away by shotguns in a botched drug raid/robbery or bloody shoot outs at fast food restaurant. There are even some Bloods who give Malcolm a beatdown and try to shoot him for stealing Dom’s Molly – just like Baby Boy has lots of hood violence or Black-On-Black violence, so does DOPE in its own passive aggressive way.
The Superbad-resemblence part of DOPE is where a pair of nerds/geeks who are weeks from graduating high school go to an underground party that changes their lives. Plot-wise, one can easily swap out the Superbad’s trio of Evan (Michael Cera), Seth (Jonah Hill) and Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and providing a party with illegal booze with DOPE’s trio of Malcolm, Jib and Diggy having to sell illegal Molly or Ecstasy.
There are the same type of awkward teenage peer pressures – Like with Superbad’s Evan and Seth wanting to go to a cool adult party to have sex with girls, just as DOPE’s Malcolm being convinced by Jib and Diggy that his only shot of impressing and having sex with Nakia (Zoë Isabella Kravitz) is to attend a drug dealer’s party. Malcolm also decides to go to Dom’s birthday party because it is a better option than watching twerking videos on his smartphone while he jacks off.
Both Superbad and DOPE establish, reinforce, and repeatedly promote the highly simplistic Hollywood myth that all high school nerds need to go to a popular house party or night club to get laid, in order to forever evolve themselves into more tolerable cool kids, that happen to be regularly sexually active.
The Risky Business aspect of DOPE can be found throughout the whole film. I have to stick a Risky Business trailer below because I am sure most Millennials, or even average moviegoers today, have a vague memory that Risky Business was Tom Cruise’s first major film in his Hollywood career.
I gotta admit upfront that Risky Business is one of my favorite teenage coming of age films from the 1980’s.
I am sure Rick Famuyia either wrote DOPE back in the late 90’s and updated it with Black geek metaphors, or he really did recently write DOPE to reflect today’s Blerd culture obstacles, issues and values. But the whole dominant narrative film plotline of Malcolm needing to impress his local Harvard alum to get a favorable recommendation while he is making tons of money doing a massive illegal operation for his teen peers, is highly identical to the narrative film plot-line of Risky Business.
Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) turning his large suburban house into brothel for all his high school friends to raise enough money to pay for the accidental wreckage of his dad’s Porsche is no different from Malcolm accidentally being given cases of Molly and having to sell it off quickly or face dire consequences from the gang bangers chasing him or from Dom when he gets out of jail.
And it cannot be lost that both Malcolm and Joel used their illegal operations to greatly influence, or blackmail in Malcolm’s case, the Harvard Alums to get them into the prestigious institution Joel’s prostitutes easily convinced a skeptical Rutherford (Richard Masur) to see the wisdom of getting Joel into Harvard. Comparably, at the end of Risky Business Joel gets to finally be with his dream girl, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), just as Malcolm at the end of DOPE finally gets to be with his dream-hood girlfriend of Nakia. And weirdly, there is the same “take responsibility for your illegal actions” speech Joel gets from a boss criminal Guido (Joe Pantoliano) that Malcolm gets from boss criminal Austin Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith) AKA AJ the Boys Club Leader.
I find it interesting that Open Road Films chose not to promote any of the many obvious Risky Business similarities while, instead, pushing DOPE to film critics and the public as a new age urban John Hughes film.
“Indie hopeful Dope fell a disturbing 53% in its second weekend to an estimated $2.9M after last week’s sluggish debut. The Open Road release, acquired by the distributor at Sundance for $7M plus a $15M investment into P&A, has grossed $11.8M and should end its domestic run in the disappointing $16-18M range. Reviews were quite good, but summer audiences just did not find this one to be a top priority given all the other high-profile choices now”….Gitesh Pandya…www.Boxofficeguru.com
Okay, that Gitesh Pandya quote above from BoxOfficeGuru.com is the bare bones facts of DOPE and its less than successful summer release by Open Road Films. And this is Strike 2 for Open Road Films, because last Fall they dropped the ball with releasing Gina Prince-Bythwood’s over-hyped Black music/romance/drama Beyond The Lights (2014). It got so embarrassingly bad that Beyond The Lights was underperforming at the box office, Gina had to post an open letter begging people, or guilt-shaming people, who wanted to support more Hollywood diversity to go see her film. The direct link to Gina’s letter is below:
But DOPE really had high expectations of being a box office winner because it had mad love on social media and high praise from critics after its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The fact that DOPE sold for $7 Million and got an additional $15 Million in P&A from Sony Pictures only meant Open Road Films doubled down on a big 2000 + screen nationwide release.
What most film reviewers never do before automatically saying or singing the film’s accolades like “DOPE was the greatest and best new Black film in a decade” or “DOPE was transformative Black film that has to be seen” is actually talk to the same young black teens or young adults of DOPE’s target demo. A week before DOPE came out I asked some of my 18 and 16 year old female cousins if they were planning to see DOPE on the upcoming Friday. They smiled and giggled and said they knew about DOPE, but it was not a priority to see right away. The only cast member of DOPE they knew was rapper A$AP Rocky who had the potential to make teen girls come to the theaters in droves; and I say that because he was the true, bright star of DOPE.
I also want to reinforce that DOPE failing at the box office was more of a misguided and simplistic marketing decision by Open Road Films than any true reflection of the film’s actual worth. I could give a marketing clinic to Rick Famuyia, Forest Whitaker and everyone at Open Road Films involved in the release of DOPE. There needs to be a serious discussion on how Open Road Films was completely clueless, again, on how to make DOPE attractive to African-American women, multicultural Millennial moviegoers as well as mainstream, white, tech savvy young adults that could have made it a sleeper-summer hit indie film, like Ex_Machina.
What has driven the huge ratings for “Empire”, “Scandal”, “How to Get Away with Murder”, “Power” and “Being Mary Jane” are hit TV shows that have strong, outspoken and independent African-American women characters which in turn appeals to a wide number of African-American women.
Malcolm’s mom/bus driver Lisa Hayes is played by veteran actor Kimberley Elise. Unfortunately, she is only in the film for a total of three irrelevant scenes that come to about five minutes, so there are no strong adult black female characters. Second, Nakia played smartly by Zoë Kravitz, had a lot of potential, but after the night club shooting she disappears for almost half the film. When Nakia does finally return, it is only for a few scenes with Malcom until we see her in the film’s wrap up moments.
Kier Simmons plays Diggy, and I really only saw her portrayed as a guy throughout DOPE. There was some referencing early on in the film to her being a lesbian, but that changed to her being bisexual, which became irrelevant towards the end because Diggy was never fully developed as a LBGT character. And all we have left is the sexpot/tease character Lily, played by Chanel Iman, who’s most important scenes in DOPE are taking off her clothes, driving high on Molly and peeing in public in some bushes by a bus stop. So, I seriously doubt there was any way for DOPE to fully target African-American women with such bland and underwritten female characters whom all had lots of potential to be much more.
That also would mean Open Road Films would have stopped trying to market DOPE as a universally, appealing Buppie film and more as an edgy urban Risky Business with shades of Baby Boy and Superbad. This route would at least not try and portray DOPE as being mainly a film about Black geeks when it is simply the shell and not the filler of the film. For example, DOPE reportedly was the first Hollywood film to accept a bitcoin for a ticket purchase. Great geek and tech achievement that I am sure has a lot symbolic merit, but did that really drive real techies and geeks to actually buy more DOPE movie tickets with real money or bitcoins?
Dope became the first movie to accept bitcoin for ticket purchases at over 900 theatres in the USA via MovieTickets.com. The choice of film to be the first to accept Bitcoin was no accident as the film follows Malcolm (played by Shameik Moore) a self-described geek who enjoys 90’s hip-hop culture and modern technology equally…IMBD.com Trivia Page
What most surprised me about DOPE is how little a highly popular, crossover Hip-Hop star like A$AP Rocky, Dom, is in the film. In fact, Open Road Film’s EPK for DOPE was not even in one film clip that features A$AP Rocky. How could it be a smart move to not create PR clips of the DOPE star with the biggest social media presence to help promote the film before and during its release?
A few weeks before the nationwide release of DOPE you could hardly find any film reviews or articles about DOPE on major Black social media sites like The Grio, The Root, Huffington Post’s Black Voices, MadameNoire, ShadowAndAct, BET.com, Newsone.com, etc. And Afropunk.com (which embodies Black Geek and the Afro-Punk Festival alternative Black music culture) had one short story about the DOPE trailer. Afropunk.com should have been posting multiple stories about DOPE and Malcolm’s fictional punk rock band Awreeoh.
DOPE was also about celebrating 90’s Hip-Hop, but what classic radio stations and 90’s Hip-Hop stars were actively used to promote DOPE? I could go on for days about how Open Road Films should have correctly marketed DOPE so that it wouldn’t become a box office dud.
I am sure it will get a lot of second and third looks when it hits Redbox, pay-per-view and cable, but until then I hope you can still find DOPE in a theater near you.
I give DOPE $$$ and would have easily given it a higher rating if they gave us more scenes with A$AP Rocky and Zoë Kravitz.